Top Hip-Hop Albums of 2008

In '08, rap didn't always equal pap.

Kanye West

808s and Heartbreak

(Def Jam)

West's fourth album almost completely dispensed with rapping, thereby perplexing and vexing scores of fans and supporters. The music itself was low-key, chilly techno that featured West's Auto-Tuned croon as the most prominent element; inevitably, what support West loses from his fan base will be replaced with critical hosannas for 808s, even though the recycled Eighties licks and equally familiar (and tiresome) it-ain't-easy-bein'-rich-and-famous sentiments mean it's merely solid and not spectacular.

Yet West's stated rationale for creating the album is fascinating. He has spoken of wanting to reach the level of a McCartney or a Bono and has presented what is essentially a pop record as a step toward that goal. We shouldn't read too much into the statement, perhaps — he's already at work on a followup, supposedly, which might well end up a return to verse — but you could also view it as a rare admission of hip-hop's limitations (or at least its limitations without the olive branch of pop). And almost 20 years after hip-hop took over the world, that's a startling idea.

That a star of West's magnitude would court scorn in this way is the sort of chance only a great artist can take and survive — a potential Prince Under the Cherry Moon moment.

Gym Class Heroes

The Quilt

(Atlantic)

Another key moment of 2008 came while listening to rough mixes of this album aboard the Heroes' tour bus last summer. Frontman Travis McCoy is an inveterate and enthusiastic tune selector; his iBook was constantly pumping out his favorites of the moment. One track that stood out ended up being left off The Quilt. Produced by hip-hop titans Cool & Dre, it was a song called "Cold Revolver," which featured McCoy on bass and was a dead ringer for The Cure. More to the point, McCoy spoke of how Cool & Dre viewed the song as a chance to stretch beyond their usual audience. In other words, it apparently wasn't a move made solely for the benefit of GCH.

The comment made more sense on the Warped Tour, where racially mixed crowds moshed to the Heroes' Lamb of God cover and the group performed its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink (in a good way) new album. There have been the usual naysayers reluctant to see their cult band go global (something McCoy addresses in "Don't Tell Me It's Over"), but The Quilt's mashup makes the same point, in its way, as Kanye West's 808s. Neither is hip-hop with hooks to make a buck; both are the products of intelligent artists who refuse to be slaves to the same old boom-bap or the same old boom-pap in their quest for wider acclaim. In short, they want it all: credibility and commercial clout. Both efforts are worth supporting.

Atmosphere

When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

(Rhymesayers)

The same point was made, in slightly more subtle fashion, by this Minneapolis duo, whose new album saw Slug and Ant broadening their scope and leaving pure hip-hop behind. The live instruments and veiled Eighties pop influences could hardly get the two accused of selling out; some of the music, in fact, was highly complex. Yet when Slug spoke earnestly of his transition from autobiography to fiction in his lyrics — as a step toward making more accessible music in primary colors such as "yellow and orange ... and fucking baby blue!" — it was hard not to think he'd reached the same conclusion as Kanye and GCH.

Tech N9ne

Killer

(Strange Music)

In his own way, perhaps, so had Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne. On Killer, he used the biggest, baddest pop iconography possible: The cover and title play off Jacko's classic Thriller, with amusing results. But what made this double album most compelling was its perspective: At age 37, Tech hasn't outgrown the silly sex story (check "Waitress"), but he also has a mature perspective that's rare in hip-hop. "Hope for a Higher Power" is a dark-hued, intelligent look at belief, while "Crybaby" offers perhaps the best response ever to those who have made hip-hop a series of warring regional factions: "The ones that wanna hold us back/Ain't been outside their cul-de-sac."

Mick Boogie and Terry Urban

Viva la Hova

The Kickdrums

Detached ... At Ease

Technically, it represents a regional scene, but the genre-bending hip-hop experimentation coming out of Cleveland on a regular basis is all about building bridges, not burning them. Boogie and Urban are the nation's indisputable mixtape kings, and their Jay-Z/Coldplay mashup Viva la Hova is as intriguing as all of those Grey/Brown albums a few years back. (Has anybody ever created a greater assortment of interesting, free popular music as these two guys?) And production duo the Kickdrums are equally ambitious on the Roxy Music-referencing "Love Is a Drug," a taster for their fine full-length.

J*DaVeY

The Beauty in Distortion/The Land of the Lost

(Interdependent)

It's as much electro and New Wave as it is hip-hop (then again, that fusion worked like a charm for Spank Rock), but there were few more invigorating sounds in '08 than the real-life mashups of this Los Angeles duo. On these twin EPs, frontwoman Jack Davey and instrumentalist Brook D'Leau find room for Daisy Age rap, Missing Persons hiccups, and a touch of their obvious influence, pre-slavery Prince.

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